As U.S. Exits, Iraqis Debate Who Controls the Future: Noe & Raad
Many “decisive turning points” have been proclaimed for Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. This time, Arab commentators seem to mean it.
With American troops set to leave by the end of the month and regional tensions mounting, many Arab media figures are convinced that Iraq is at a tipping point that will determine the future course of the country and, possibly, the Middle East. With what result?
Writing in the Iraqi newspaper As-Sabah, columnist Bassem Mohammad Habib observed that there is a divergence “between those who expect this withdrawal to be followed by the expansion of violence and an increase in armed operations and those who expect the opposite, i.e. that the American withdrawal will lead to a change in the balance of powers in favor of the political process.”
The latter group, which generally supports Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as does Habib's newspaper, believes that Iraq’s security problems are largely due to “the diverging views and goals of the Iraqi and American sides.” As a result, Habib wrote, Iraqi political forces “have not yet become aware of their role and legal responsibility." The U.S. pullout, he said, “will test the credibility of the slogans raised by these forces, once the new reality strips them of their cover.”
Mohammad Akef Jamal, a columnist for the Iraqi daily Al-Bayan, was darker. “The withdrawal of the American forces at the end of the current year will unleash problems that grew more dangerous during their dormant phase,” he wrote. Maliki, he said, will face “serious crises threatening both his cabinet and the future of Iraq as a unified country,” a reference to talk of secession along sectarian linesby several parts of the country, notably the Kurdish region in the north. Jamal wrote:
The dominant blocs on the Iraqi political scene are not hiding their fear about the phase that will follow the American military pullout, but they still lack a practical work program to face it.
In the Iraqi daily Al-Mada, columnist Shaker al-Anbari wrote that the coming test was for the whole of Iraqi society, not just the decision-making elites. During the past eight years, he said, Iraqi society “engaged in dialogue, sometimes using the language of murder and blood, other times the language of logic and reason. It learned about its weaknesses and strengths.”
The central question facing Iraqis is simple, he wrote: “Are we ready for a comprehensive reassessment to prove to ourselves -- before proving to others -- that we are worthy of leading our country and moving it to the shores of modernity?'' He continued, "The desired civil society should be Iraqi and not European or American, and its priorities should be respect for the freedom of expression and human life,” references to Maliki’s autocratic tendencies and to a spate of bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months. Anbari wrote, "A comprehensive reassessment, as everyone knows, necessitates a climate of calm, stability and civil peace."
Some commentators worried that even if Iraq achieves these things domestically, its fortunes will be buffeted by turmoil in the region, notably by chaos in neighboring Syria, which appears to be descending into a civil war along sectarian lines, which similarly threaten Iraq. In the Iraqi daily Al-Mada, columnist Ali Hussein noted, “Iraqi politicians disagree on everything except for one matter only: their fear of the changes that are taking place in the Arab world,” especially Syria.
Although some political figures, Sunni militias and religious leaders in Iraq have voiced support for the opposition in Syria, the Maliki-led government has stood by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and rejected an Arab League boycott against it. The uprisings on the Arab street, Hussein wrote, “represent an intifada against injustice and tyranny,” which means that refusing to challenge regimes like Assad's is “an unpardonable crime.”
For some commentators, the main ramification of the troop withdrawal will be not its effect on Iraq but rather the possibility that the U.S, relieved of the burden of Iraq, will increase pressure on America's main regional opponents, Syria and Iran.
Writing in Dubai’s Gulf News, Marwan al-Kabalan laid out what he thought would motivate the U.S.:
After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, if Iran manages to geographically connect the parts of the so-called Shiite Crescent -- adding Iraq to the existing 'axis of resistance' that includes Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, that could change the political landscape of the region in a fundamental way.
Thus, Syria's foes have “naturally seized the opportunity to try to change the regional balance of power in their favor," Kabalan wrote. "For them, this is not about Syria. It is not about freedom and democracy for the Syrian people either. Rather, it is about Iran and its rising influence.”
The only way, Kabalan continued, to contain Iran's "rising power and prevent it from benefiting from the retreat of the U.S. in the region is to prevent a geographic connection between parts of the Shiite crescent,” which means breaking the regime in Damascus.
Iraq itself may yet prove willing and able to play a meaningful role in this separation. With President Maliki having made recent, public assurances that Iraq is more capable of distancing itself from Iranian influence now that U.S. troops will be leaving entirely, it might be time to consider that Iraq can protect its own national interests, even if its capacities are below what most Iraqis had hoped for by now.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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